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Based off of George R.R. Martin’s 1,000-page opus A Clash of Kings, the second season of HBO’s Game of Thrones takes the first year’s intricate plot lines, character shadings, and thematic undercurrents and simultaneously expands and deepens them to a ridiculously exponential degree. Or, at least, it’s supposed to – the actual doing just may prove to be a ways off from the source material’s being.
This column (It Is Known: An Analysis of Thrones) acts as a companion piece to both series, novel and television, analyzing the continuing story of the War of the Five Kings – and how it fares in the transition from the page to the screen. What it will not do is spoil the story; the hope and intent is elucidation, not ruination.
Given the twists and turns, betrayals and sacrifices that await in the next episode, such illumination will be needed.
It is known.
Episode 210: “Valar Morghulis”
The opening shot of Tyrion Lannister’s eye is – just to be frank – nothing short of brilliant. It not only condenses a great deal of time in a few short beats, and it not only nicely encapsulates Tyrion’s painful haze, it also is a beautiful, dynamic shot in and of itself. When art and economy can meet in such a seamless fashion, it is the gold standard of cinema, and it easily makes Alan Taylor, with six episodes already under his belt, Game of Thrones’s version of The X-Files’s Rob Bowman, Babylon 5’s Mike Vejar, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Joss Whedon. That’s like entering the pantheon of the (television) gods.
And then there are several further moments that follow it, ranging from another gorgeous extreme close-up of eyes – this time, King Stannis Baratheon’s and Lady Melisandre’s as they peer into the flames of the future – to the surreal majesty of nearly the entire House of the Undying sequence. When Daenerys Targaryen exits from a rather standard stone-and-mortar chamber to a snow-covered throne room back in King’s Landing, and then on to the Wall and a lone Dothraki hut out in the snowy wilderness beyond it, there is an eerie beauty that permeates all, a quietness that is not fully pleasant but not quite disturbing, either. While this is not an exact replica of what transpires in the novel, it does pay homage while playing off the inherently visual strength of the medium: seeing Dany on those regular sets – and even interacting with Drogo again (the horselord is not in the book, unfortunately, but their unborn son certainly is, albeit in a much more aged fashion) – hits the viewer on a level that the printed page never could hope to match.
If showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss were smart – and, so far, it seems like they certainly are – they will tap Taylor to helm many more episodes in the years that are to come.
The Differences between the Episode and the Novel
There is no two ways about it: “Valar Morghulis” is, at 73 minutes, the longest and largest episode of the series yet, and it is, unsurprisingly, chock full of alterations, both big and small. As such, it might behoove the analysis to break the column’s normal format and instead offer up a plethora of more bite-sized chunks (in chronological order, of course):
• When Tyrion awakes in his new bedroom in Maegor’s Holdfast in the novel, he is tended to by a never-before-seen maester (who gets only marginally utilized in the following books). In the series, this was rather nicely changed to the recently-restored Grand Maester Pycelle, which presents the showrunners with the opportunity to touch upon previous story beats that would otherwise have been left out in the cold. Pycelle acts without the slightest affectation of his old man routine (which was revealed to be a routine in the first season finale, “Fire and Blood” [episode 110], and which was an invention on the part of Weiss and Benioff), and his tossing of a coin in the Imp’s face is a nice callback to his utter humiliation at the other’s hands (“What Is Dead May Never Die,” 203). In the series, as in the novels, revenge is the sweetest, most-sought-after dish – and is very much in the eye of the beholder.
• Lord Petyr Baelish’s offer to rescue Sansa Stark from the viper’s nest that is King’s Landing is nowhere to be found in Clash of Kings, although the storyline does, indeed, have a presence in the text. It is Ser Dontos, the drunkard knight who is sentenced to death by King Joffrey (“The North Remembers,” 201), who secretly comes to Sansa with the offer of bringing her home. The rationale he gives is a token of appreciation for her having saved his life – being a fool is much better than being executed – but it is ultimately revealed in the third book that it is Littlefinger who is behind the whole operation (it is not wise to work directly out in the open; in fact, his talking to Sansa of what is essentially treason right in the middle of the throne room in front of a multitude of people is something that never would have happened in the source material). By removing the middle man (literally), the showrunners manage to conserve precious screen time, and moving the start of this particular thread from the very beginning of the season to the very end can be seen as a further streamlining.
• For hitting all the same notes as in the novel, Theon Greyjoy comes out of this season as a slightly – but still substantially – different man. He is, first and foremost, a dramatically more sympathetic character, thanks to the addition of scenes like his attempting to write a letter of warning to King Robb Stark and his baptism in front of his hostile family, as well as the added exchanges between Maester Luwin and him in this episode regarding the depths of his desperation – and his self-awareness, which is perhaps a tad more actualized here than on the printed page. (Small thanks for the greater immediacy of his arc also goes to a small number of characters and subplots that were stripped out of this season.) Theon’s rousing speech to his men on the eve of battle is a capstone to this parallel track of character development, and it’s also a great source of humor in a particular section of the story that is largely devoid of it.
• It also marks a point of significant divergence from the book. There is a stand-off between Theon Turncloak and the surrounding Northmen, which have been rallied by Ser Rodrik Cassel (he dies at this point in the story as opposed to at the beginning of Winterfell’s occupation) instead of Lord Roose Bolton’s bastard son (who has a small but significant presence all through the novel; it is his idea to butcher the two children and pass them off as Bran and Rickon Stark, for instance). Then the Northmen are betrayed, attacked, and scattered, with the double-crossers being welcomed into Winterfell by Theon and his Ironborn as heroes… until they, too, are betrayed, attacked, and scattered, with the prize of Winterfell being burnt to the ground and Theon himself being taken prisoner (though the reader is not certain whether he is injured and abducted or just killed, as Martin does love his end-of-book cliffhangers). Benioff and Weiss’s version functions more-or-less the same, but just how the Ironmen are able to slip past the Northern army’s siege lines is unknown. Did Maester Luwin tell them of the (not-in the-books) secret passageways with his dying breath?
• Talisa Maegyr, from name to personality to backstory, is a wholly different character from her literary counterpart. In A Clash of Kings, she is Jeyne Westerling, the daughter of the lord of the Crag, who tends to the wounds that King Robb sustained during the fight for her castle. Once word reaches the occupied Lannister territory that Bran and Rickon have been killed at the hands of “Prince” Theon, she tends to Robb’s emotional needs, as well… which, finally, leads to her tending his sexual ones. Ashamed of his dishonor, he marries the sweet and good-hearted noble girl to make their relationship right in the eyes of the gods and men; supporting the fledgling relationship (and the opportunity, no doubt, to become part of the royal family), Jeyne’s lord father and lady mother switch sides to support the Starks in the War of the Five Kings. It is easy to see why the showrunners made such a change – to make the storyline deserving of the significantly expanded screen time, and to also help play up the characterization of Robb more as a young man rather than an elder boy, a deeper, more dynamic love interest was created.
• In keeping with the first season finale (into which Arya’s introduction to the ragtag recruits of the Night’s Watch was inserted) and the drift of the past few episodes (which have seen the addition of the Lady Brienne/Ser Jaime storyline), the prologue of the third novel, which shows the beginning – but only the very beginning – of the White Walkers’ attack on the Fist of the First Men, was moved up to be the tag of this episode. It’s a rather shrewd move, as it ends the entire season on an even higher note of tension and cliffhanging, as well as keeping the largely off-screen ice zombies fresh in audience’s minds (not to mention helping to condense the material that will need to be shown in the third season première, which, judging by this year’s opener, will no doubt be absolutely loaded with narrative material as it is). Seeing the creatures in all their rotting horror also works well for the small screen, but the addition of Samwell Tarly into the thick of the action is mystifying, to say the least. How will he escape? Why does the White Walker ignore him – and why will all of its undead minions? And how does this not dilute, or otherwise make redundant, the character arc that Sam will have in the next two seasons (unless, of course, the producers do a remarkable amount of rewriting and push everything forward by several episodes)?
It is not known.
Expanding the Story
The season’s over, but that doesn’t mean you have to go without your in-depth Game of Thrones kick. It Is Known: An Analysis of Thrones, Vol. I covers nearly every square inch of the first season, and it’ll help you discover connections to the just-ended season that will increase your enjoyment of both. Plus, it’ll give you something to do while you’re waiting for the third season (and the second volume) to release.
The Lore Behind the Iron Throne
- A Game of Characterization: Roundtabling Game of Thrones’s Second Season (Thus Far)
- What Has Been Known
- Game of Thrones: A Primer
- Season Two Roundtable
Previous It Is Known Installments
- Episode 19: Blackwater
- Episode 18: The Prince of Winterfell
- Episode 17: A Man Without Honor
- Episode 16: The Old Gods and the New
- Episode 15: The Ghost of Harrenhal
- Episode 14: Garden of Bones
- Episode 13: What Is Dead May Never Die
- Episode 12: The Nightlands
- Episode 11: The North Remembers
- Episode 10: Fire and Blood
- Episode 9: Baelor
- Episode 8: The Pointy End
- Episode 7: You Win or You Die
- Episode 6: A Golden Crown
- Episode 5: The Wolf and the Lion
- Episode 4: Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things
- Episode 3: Lord Snow
- Episode 2: The Kingsroad
- Episode 1: Winter Is Coming
[Marc N. Kleinhenz has had some 250 articles published across 18 sites, including IGN, Theme Park Insider, and Westeros. He’s very relieved that Game of Thrones has ended so that he can get some sleep once again… until the baby arrives in September, that is.]
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